To call Asbury Park a secret would betray its tumultuous and storied history: A wellspring of American music, tucked around the swamps of Jersey. A home to national icons. A vibrant L.G.B.T.Q. community. A city that bears the scars of the civil rights movement, blighted for decades by mismanagement and mistrust, that’s now in the midst of a soaring recovery fueled by the very soul that gave Asbury its reason for being: music.
Now Asbury Park is called “the Coolest Small Town in America” by travel magazines and is regularly placed on “top beach destinations” lists.
Yet just an hourlong drive from Manhattan without traffic, Asbury Park still feels like a discovery, a New Orleans-meets-Dogtown city by the sea that’s ignored by the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the Long Island Expressway out to the Hamptons, the overcrowded ferries shuttling day-trippers to Rockaway Beach or the snarled causeway lined with cars to Long Beach Island.
Ignored, of course, at their own loss. Because as I’ve learned since my first trip to Asbury 25 years ago, to catch the Warped Tour with my dad in the lot behind the storied Stone Pony, Asbury Park offers a Jersey Shore idyll for all comers: the rockers, diners, surfers, art patrons and just fans of a simple relaxing day on the beach. I’ve been keeping a rotating and updated list of suggestions for friends and family for years now to help them have the perfect summer weekend. Now I’ll share it with Times readers, too.
A beach weekend
You’re here for the beach, so let’s start with that. Most important: This is the Jersey Shore, home to paid beach access and draconian parking rules. Asbury Park, fortunately, has ample parking near the beach, and imposes no time limit on metered parking, though it will run you $3 an hour from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. with no discounts on a full day rate. Then an all-day beach pass costs $6 per person on weekdays, and climbs to $9 on the weekend.
OK, time to pick a jetty. Surfers, head north, as the only summertime surf beach during lifeguard hours is off Eighth Avenue and Deal Lake Drive (of course, no restrictions on dawn patrol or sunset sessions). Non-surfers eager to shred can book lessons at the surf beach through Summertime Surf. For the similarly active but terra firma crowd, make for the beaches near Sixth Avenue and look for the volleyball nets to join a pickup game or host your own.
The northern beaches are also home to the “dog beach,” a necessity in a city where bars build puppy playgrounds, host dog-friendly “Yappy Hours” and the Mardi Gras parade centers on costumed pooches; it’s not uncommon to see dogs in party hats trotting along the boardwalk following a birthday shindig. So, in the early mornings and every night after 6:30 p.m., the beach near Deal Lake is open to dogs (and their owners).
For those just looking to sit on the beach and relax, pick up a beach read at the Asbury Book Cooperative, a unique and locally owned bookstore that operates as a co-op, with members given voting power over decisions and discounts on new books.
The Asbury Park boardwalk, storied as it may be through its appearances in Springsteen songs and Sopranos scenes, is not the kind of amusement park-on-the-water that many other Shore towns claim; more restaurants and bars line the planks here. But there’s still some traditional beach fun, including the Asbury Splash Park, where sprinklers, hoses and other water-emitting devices line the lot for children. And the Silverball Pinball Museum, an arcade that doubles as a museum of historic pinball machines dating back to the 1950s, offers an opportunity to join the wizards down on Pinball Way.
A music weekend
Every September, Asbury Park is the site of SeaHearNow, a nationally recognized, two-day festival, but on any given weekend, it can feel like its own music festival, as anywhere from a brewery to a bookstore to a coffee shop to a hotel lobby sometimes plays host to live music.
Start off in the afternoon at the Transparent Clinch Gallery, where local artists play on an intimate stage beneath the gaze of countless music legends photographed by the renowned photographer Danny Clinch. A Jersey Shore native, Mr. Clinch has photographed Bruce Springsteen, the Foo Fighters, Tupac and more, and his gallery on the eastern end of the Asbury Hotel is packed with portraits of iconic artists, including a (nearly) life-size Mr. Springsteen leaning against a muscle car that visitors can pose with for a picture. Mr. Clinch will often join the bands onstage with his harmonica, holding down a recent blues duet with the local Seaside band Johnny Nameless.
From there, walk downtown to the House of Independents, a large sunken venue that can pack 500 fans in for a Jersey punk showcase, a more reflective, indie marquee night or simply put a D.J. onstage and have a dance party. Close the night by heading a couple blocks down to the Saint, a venue that feels unchanged since it opened its doors in 1994, for a mix of local artists and nationally touring bands, that are packed into a sliver of a space that could easily double as a punky dive bar.
The second day of our self-styled festival kicks off with brunch at R Bar, a new standout New Orleans-themed restaurant on Main Street that hosts a brass brunch on Saturday and a blues brunch on Sunday in the backyard garden. Grab a Kane Head High on draft and some blue crab beignets and settle in for a perfect Jersey-meets-New-Orleans combo.
The main event is down Second Avenue, where the siren song from the legendary Stone Pony is still echoing down the boardwalk, 48 years since it first opened its doors, and Mr. Springsteen still shows up on occasion. The venue’s Summer Stage, housed in the back lot, hosts major national acts from Phil Lesh to Jason Isbell to the Bouncing Souls, while the aftershow might be inside the Pony, where local bands grace the same stage that Mr. Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt and Southside Johnny regularly called home.
If your ears aren’t ringing yet, head back on the boardwalk at the Asbury Park Yacht Club, which often has late night concerts going past midnight on the weekends, and sweaty dancers spilling out into the salt air.
A food tour, Jersey style
Asbury’s many music venues may only be eclipsed by the booming restaurant scene. There’s a lot to eat, so let’s start early.
This is New Jersey, after all, so for breakfast, you’re going to eat that greasy, salty chopped pork shoulder product: Taylor Ham (or, as they call it in Asbury, Pork Roll). It’s available all over the city, but for the best experience, head to the Johnny Pork Roll truck in the North Eats Food Truck park and get the Sandwich, a traditional pork roll, egg and cheese with “saltpepperketchup,” a condiment accompaniment that must be uttered in a single breath.
If experimenting with the state’s most precious and peculiar cuisine is not in the cards, head to Cardinal Provisions for a mix of traditional brunch standards and original takes, like the cacio e pepe eggs.
You’ll want to walk off that breakfast, so stroll downtown toward Frank’s Deli and Restaurant for a classic, multi-page laminated menu and formica-topped booths. There’s nothing bad on this menu, but you’re here for jaw-locking Italian sandwiches. Order them like Anthony Bourdain used to: a heaping pile of ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce and hot peppers, drenched in oil and vinegar.
Now, dinner can go in two directions. You could fashion a full pizza tour, sampling all the styles of New Jersey in the Asbury square mile. Start at Maruca’s on the boardwalk for a slice of “Tomato Pie” a Jersey original where the sauce swirls like a spiral out from the center, mingling with the cheese rather than being buried by it. Then Talula’s hawks some of the best Neapolitan pizzas in New Jersey or New York, sourcing all their ingredients from local farms identified on a blackboard above the bar. Or head to Killer Pies for a traditional slice and a custom, classic fountain soda.
For more of a sit-down dinner, head to Heirloom at St. Laurent (where a $75 prix-fixe meal with a signature duck dish may be the finest dining in town), Pascal & Sabine for French-inspired fare, or Barrio Costero for elevated Mexican cooking and some of the best shrimp tacos on the shore. The boardwalk is home to Langosta Lounge and its famous Surf Curry, with fresh seafood floating in a house blend of yellow and green curry. Newcomer R Bar offers classic Big Easy dishes like gumbo, but also Jersey-inspired spins like a fried pork roll sandwich that is a homage to the famous fried bologna sandwich at Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans. And since the fish are swimming so close by, there’s plenty of seafood at the Bonney Read.
If you saved room for dessert, head to Confections of a Rockstar and order cupcakes and other treats like a Macaroon 5, S’more than a Feeling or a Oreo Speedwagon (I could keep going but I’ll save some surprises for the visit).
Where to stay
Unlike many Jersey Shore towns, Asbury Park boasts multiple large hotels with full amenities and a range of prices. To experience the new, modern essence of Asbury, stay at the Asbury, a hotel fashioned out of the historic Salvation Army building that often has live music in the lobby, a rooftop bar and a pool out back (weekdays start at $395, weekends $660). Just across Bradley Park is the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, a long-running hotel that has been remodeled and upgraded (weekdays start at $295, weekends $459). At the other end of the beach is the Empress hotel (weekdays $229, weekends $339), a popular spot for L.G.B.T.Q. visitors, with views of the ocean.
For those looking for luxury, the new Asbury Ocean Club (weekdays start at $585, weekends $905), housed in a shimmering glass tower at the center of the beach expanse, is like stepping out of Asbury and into a Hamptons or South Beach scene. The lobby, bar and pool is all on the second floor of the hotel, with the only street exposure a small vestibule with elevators. And the St. Laurent ($425 to $600 most nights), newly opened this summer in the historic Hotel Tides building, counts 20 individually styled rooms — each is decorated with a custom surfboard by a local artist and comes with complimentary beach passes — above an expansive restaurant, whiskey bar and backyard pool.